I learned some significant lessons recently at an International Religious Freedom Conference in Washington D.C. I was granted the undeserved honor of sitting beside some esteemed friends on a panel about Nigerian Genocide, and I guarantee that I learned more from them than they did from me.
There is quite a difference between fighting for Liberty and fighting for my own rights and freedom. I know, I know . . . my own freedom is still liberty. But it is not Liberty (with a capital L – the universal value). Fighting for Liberty is weighted towards others, however it may serve me personally, and fighting for my rights is weighted toward “self” or “mine”, however it may serve others at large.
Take the concept of human rights versus civil rights versus individual rights. They certainly overlap but they are not all the same thing.
Human Rights arise from natural law. All humans have certain rights by virtue of being human, regardless of the specific society where they find themselves. Human Rights presuppose a higher power which granted those rights. I say this because if human rights did not come from a higher power which established natural law, anyone in power in government would have the ability to alienate a man from those rights. In an old letter to King George, Thomas Jefferson stated that certain rights are “unalienable” because they are “endowed their Creator.” Natural Law and Human Rights were recognized long before the Founding Father of the U.S.A., but you might say the U.S. made them famous, and then The United Nations declared them to be “universal” in 1948 with the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” I feel compelled to point out here that, having read Mr. Jefferson’s translation of the Bible and some of his other writings, I am confident that the Creator he was invoking was not the Jewish or Christian God so much as a general “Creator” being a philosophical tool on which to prop up the inalienable rights. It could have been Buddha or Krishna or Jehovah equally as effectively.
Civil Rights arise from a specific government. The civil rights of Cameroon are quite different from those of the United States. I met a lady from Cameroon, Africa recently in Washington D.C. During a discussion about religious freedom, she rose and explained that in her country the residents didn’t even have the right to assembly – a civil right that Americans take for granted. When Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for civil rights, some of those rights were natural human rights – such as the right not to be beaten half to death – and some were civil rights – such as the right to sit at a lunch counter. So where human rights come from a god – philosophically speaking, any god, civil rights come from a government. A widely recognized human right is the equal application of civil rights within the same society, by the way.
Individual Rights are yet another strain of this species. Perhaps the shallowest but perhaps this is where the rubber meets the road. Sometimes we find that we must relinquish some Individual Rights to preserve the larger Human or Civil Rights. For example, Rosa Parks was insisting on all three species of rights on that famous bus, but it was apparently too much to ask for someone else to relinquish their individual right to their seat at that moment to acknowledge the bigger picture, of which they were apparently oblivious. This matter of individual rights becomes more complicated when it comes to cake. That’s right. Cake.
A nice Christian person may have an objection to baking a cake to celebrate a same sex wedding. The baker has a “right of conscience” (original, language that was replaced in the 1st Amendment) or religion, to decline to create a piece of art that flies in the face of the baker’s religion. From the baker’s perspective, the bride and groom can acquire a cake elsewhere and everyone’s rights – individual, civil and human – are intact. But from the couple’s perspective, they have a civil – even a human – right to be treated equally with every other couple, regardless of what anyone’s ideas of sin are. Who wins? This is what Americans argue about while Nigerians struggle with mass murder based on religion, or Nepalese are jailed for a religious conversion, or Vietnamese are tortured for “proselytizing.”
I’m afraid I have sympathy for both sides. Oh I certainly fall on one more than the other on each argument, but I have yet to find any human, or civil rights arguments in which I would resort to name calling or belittling the opposing viewpoint. Honestly, I would bake the cake but I wouldn’t insist someone bake a cake for me if they weren’t so inclined. Sometimes you have to give up a few individual rights for the sake of the larger species. Jesus gave up a massive set of rights for the benefit of people committing sins that He never committed. And He didn’t call the sinners idiots in the process. I’m afraid He saved the name calling for the leaders of the church.
I said all that to say this: For my conscience, I feel like I’m not accomplishing much if I only argue for the rights of a certain sect. It’s all or nothing. If I believe in God (which I do) and I believe that He is the engineer of Natural Law and Free Will (which I do), then I will speak for the rights of all – saints and sinners alike. Because which is which, anyway?
Here I am. Send me.